BWW Review: A MONSTER CALLS, Old Vic
After being turned into a film, Patrick Ness's award-winning novel A Monster Calls becomes a visceral stage play. It analysed the depths of grief and loss in a teen, Conor (Matthew Tennyson), who's slowly losing his mum to cancer. He's visited by a Monster (Stuart Goodwin), who tells him stories and explains the complications of being human.
The production is thoroughly enthralling. Director Sally Cookson uses thick ropes hanging from the flies to engage the audience's attention. They become the yew tree itself as well as the seatbelts in Conor's grandmother's car, successfully building a precise and imaginative onstage world.
Cookson's adaptation is storytelling in its finest form: projections are used sparingly but efficiently to help bring Conor's nightmarish experiences to life on Michael Vale's stark white set, while a two-piece band contribute with live music to Benji Bower's score.
Even though it's packed with movement, the piece feels visually light and seamless. Movement director Dan Canham styles an intricate and solid choreography, interlacing it with simple aerial acrobatics (by Matt Costain).
The company is stunning. From Tennyson's vacant stare, lost in his own personal grief, to his mother's (Marianne Oldham) too-positive attitude, they all bring well-rounded and complete performances. Goodwin is brutally and alarmingly charismatic as the Monster - tall on his stilts, he towers physically and vocally above the rest of the actors.
Cookson's take on the story becomes more than an exploration of humanity; she shows how nightmares and reality intertwine and blur the lines of good and bad, just like the Monster tells Conor. The show displays the purified rage and heartache of seeing someone slipping out of life and demonstrates the impact of lying about death to younger people.
Conor's anguish is blown up even more by her mother's hyper-positivity and her grandmother's brushing him off as too young to understand what's going on. He lashes out, destroying his grandma's living room (which sets off a wordless and heart-wrenching reaction from Selina Cadell) and sending his bully (John Leader) to the hospital.
From start to finish, A Monster Calls is a refined and beautifully told tale of horror, pain and recovery, full of exquisitely rendered tearjerking moments.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan